YARMOUTH, Maine — More than a dozen people circled around former Gov. Paul LePage at a marina in the middle of a work day. He talked policy, cracked jokes and hammered Gov. Janet Mills. They ate it up.
“I came from the streets. I was a fighter my whole life. I am not an elitist — I don’t want to be,” LePage said. “I prefer being home at night with my family. But when it’s time to step it up, I step it up.”
Everyone clapped. LePage’s off-the-cuff nature is perhaps his greatest strength and weakness, generating the most loyal base of support seen in the modern era of Maine politics but leading to a vast number of controversies that have made him one of the state’s most divisive figures.
But more than a decade after the Republican was introduced to a statewide audience, people continue to be mesmerized by what they see as unmatched authenticity, a quality at the center of his race to win back the Blaine House from his Democratic rival. It is seen as among the tightest elections for governor in the nation.
LePage often travels with Republican legislative candidates in their districts on day trips dubbed a “listening tour.” They are generally advertised in Republican circles and the media is not notified. But a reporter tagged along on events in the Portland suburbs on Wednesday.
Supporters there were not dismissive about LePage’s potential downsides, which include a string of comments viewed as racist or highly offensive. The Maine Democratic Party recently ran an advertising campaign reminding Mainers of the vulgar voicemail he left for a former lawmaker just over six years ago. Some even doubt his ability to win.
Jim Moulton, 73, of North Yarmouth likes LePage for both his policies and style. He will rein in spending and doesn’t “sugarcoat” the truth, he said. But the changes seen in Maine in recent years make victory “an uphill battle” even though he wants to see LePage “trounce” Mills.
“He’s not one of those greasy, oily politicians kissing babies,” said Craig Marx, 68, a general laborer at the marina. “There’s going to be a bunch, especially in southern Maine, that aren’t going to like that quality.”
LePage’s visits are not always on such friendly turf. On Wednesday, he went from a Gray gun shop to a farmers market in Falmouth, which voted overwhelmingly for Mills in 2018.
Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage hams it up with a baby during a campaign stop in Cumberland on Wednesday Aug. 31, 2022; LePage gets smooches from a 5-month-old Jack Russell terrier named Gilda. LePage has an 8-year-old Jack Russell named Veto. Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Though some supporters came to greet him, there was an air of coldness toward him there and he stayed for less than half an hour. Attendees hinted at or stated their dislike of the former governor. Still, those who interacted with him said the exchanges were pleasant.
Diane Howe, 67, a retired office support worker, traveled there to see LePage, worrying before he got there that the crowd may not be friendly. After she missed him, she went to see him at another event later in the day.
“I know he’s a little gruff in the way he comes across with people,” Howe said with a laugh. “But that’s OK with me because he gets things done.”
LePage is often compared to former President Donald Trump, a comparison that he leaned into in 2016, saying he was “Trump before Trump.” It has only fit in terms of their style. Their backgrounds could not be more different, with the former governor growing up in a family with 18 siblings and leaving home at age 11 due to abuse at the hands of his father.
“He cares more than every other politician that we’ve had come to us, for sure,” said Sam Mason, a 32-year-old mechanic at the marina.
LePage can be entertaining on the campaign trail. At a pep rally at Copp Motors, a car dealership in Cumberland, he played with a Jack Russell terrier puppy named Gilda, letting her kiss his nose. A woman mistakenly asked him for a “quickie” instead of a “selfie.” She quickly corrected herself, LePage laughed and they took the picture.
He is also unpredictable. At the marina, he asked a young boy about some of the work he helps with there. He launched into changes he would like to see to child labor laws, a pet issue of his while governor, when he told a reporter that 12-year-olds should be allowed to work part-time.
In August, he threatened to “deck” a Maine Democratic Party staffer at a Madawaska event that he said violated his personal space while filming him. After asking permission, LePage physically demonstrated to a reporter how it happened on Wednesday, with him playing the role of the tracker. The reporter played LePage. He demonstrated how close the tracker had gotten to him, making painless physical contact, while a party spokesperson said the tracker never made contact with LePage.
LePage is likely to sweep small, rural communities across the state that are reliably Republican. But gaining some votes in the many populous suburbs of Portland will be essential to his victory. They have grown and gotten more liberal since his last election in 2014 and no incumbent governor has been defeated here since 1966.
He acknowledged the importance of winning many in the area that voted for Mills in 2018, saying he was hopeful parents and small business owners would come to his side this time.
“I govern for everyone, the working class and small businesses that have been greatly ignored by this administration,” LePage said.
If he does it, it will be largely due to people like Howe, who likes that LePage doesn’t give “BS” to people. It reminds her of Trump. But she was quick to note that it does turn some Mainers off, including in the area she lives in.
“They hate LePage, and they hate Trump for the same reasons,” Howe said.